Beyond the binary: Yes, nonbinary femmes exist

A person in high heels standing against a wall

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When you see a person with wide hips, breasts, long hair, makeup, maybe you think that person’s a woman — especially if that person is wearing a dress or skirt, a flowy top, high heels, the trappings of performative femininity. Well, I’ve got news for you: nonbinary femmes exist, they’re tired of being erased, and there’s some serious misogyny to unpack in the way nonbinary people are represented. These are all subjects I’ve written about before, but the memory of the internet is short, and this is clearly a subject where many people could benefit from a little brushup.

So let’s review, shall we? A relatively small percentage of the population identifies as transgender, with a gender identity that does not align with that of their assigned gender and sex (n.b. this is an extremely simplified thumbnail definition). Many of those people are positioned on a binary — they are people who were assigned male, for example, because they were born with penises, when in fact they are actually women. Some choose to transition, to varying degrees; there is no such thing as ‘trans enough’ or some sort of magic milepost at which you are suddenly given your gender entry visa and approved for maleland or femaleland.

And then there are people who are nonbinary — though not all people who are not on the binary identify that way, and this term is a primarily Western term rooted in Western conceptions of gender and identity. These people lie on a spectrum, or outside it altogether, using a huge variety of terms to describe themselves, and sometimes codifying them even further — a butch genderqueer, say. Here’s the thing, though: almost all representations of nonbinary people are those of people with narrow hips, relatively flat chest, and slim builds.

Many also present with masculine elements.

Which is fine. Nonbinary gender spans a huge scope of personal appearance and expression. But it’s troubling that in general culture, only a very narrow range of people are treated and presented as nonbinary. If we’re to believe things like art projects that claim to be documenting nonbinary lives, nonbinary people aren’t fat, they don’t have breasts and hips. They present mostly masculine, perhaps with a slightly fey appearance. Perhaps some look vaguely like butchy women — but nonbinary femmes are nowhere to be seen, and when they try to assert themselves and speak out about their identities, they’re often treated very harshly.

In other words, they’re caught in the same antifemininity trap that women have to deal with, where feminine gender performance and expression is sneered at and deemed lesser. Which is incredibly misogynist — it’s effectively saying that women who are interested in makeup or who wear dresses or who like heels are somehow less worthy by nature of their femininity. This should trouble people who think this way and claim to be concerned about gender politics, but it doesn’t.

Nonbinary femmes are misgendered constantly, forcibly labeled as women even when people are corrected. Their preferred pronouns are ignored and people treat them as women in social and political settings. People attempt to suppress their work and personal expression, exclude them from trans spaces, and erase their very presence, which is incredibly isolating for nonbinary femmes, who are left struggling with their gender entirely on their own. If you don’t see any people who look like you talking about the things you’re trying to deal with, it’s really difficult to come to terms with them.

If you’re uneasy in an identity as a woman but everyone calls you a woman, you might have trouble thinking  of yourself as nonbinary — and when you turn to resources for the trans community to explore gender identity, you might see that none of the bodies represented there are like yours. In a community that’s allegedly diverse and complex, you’re tossed aside and treated like garbage, or even a pretender. Nonbinary femmes, you see, are just special snowflakes who want to have their cake and eat it too, dressing up like women and enjoying ‘passing privilege’ but still claiming a marginalised identity.

Things are much more complicated than that, as nonbinary femmes know. It can be incredibly stressful to live, move, and act on the margins of a society that repeatedly tells you that you don’t exist, and repeatedly erases your identity. Many nonbinary femmes struggle with issues like depression and related mental health conditions; trans people in general are already more likely to confront mental illnesses thanks to the widespread nature of transphobia, and it manifests in very different ways (trans women in particular are at extreme risk for depression and suicidal ideation), but in nonbinary femmes, it’s again erased.

Gender is diverse and wonderful and amazing. We’re talking about the huge spectrum of gender and culture now more than ever before, which is fantastic. But we also need to talk about how some groups are cut out of the conversation, and how damaging that is. Repeatedly telling people that they aren’t ‘trans enough,’ that they don’t exist, that they don’t deserve respect and due consideration, is harmful. And until we break down myths surrounding nonbinary femmes, we can’t take the next social and cultural step of creating a better world for both them and everyone else.

That means talking openly about nonbinary femme identities and pushing back on transphobia. Because people who are struggling with their gender identity need a place to turn and they need the knowledge that people are there to support them. Seeing people with bodies and identities like yourself can be incredibly empowering, can feel like the pieces of a puzzle clicking together at last. Seeing those people trashed for who they are, on the other hand, can leave you scuttling for the darkest corner of the closet, afraid to engage with your community and come out as yourself.

‘Androgyny’ doesn’t mean ‘looking like a fey man.’ It means whatever you need it to mean. Nonbinary femmes exist — and it’s up to everyone to create safer spaces for them.

Note: This post has a second part discussing different kinds of nonbinary femme identities. You can read it here

Image: Femme, Carolina Melo, Flickr